India has a WhatsApp problem and something needs to be done about it

Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind
Lavanya Shanbhogue ArvindApr 20, 2018 | 13:36

India has a WhatsApp problem and something needs to be done about it

“Shame on 90 crore Hindus,” reads a WhatsApp message that I received on not one but two WhatsApp groups.

The message goes on to state that the Supreme Court has entrusted the decision of the disputed Ayodhya site to the citizens of the nation through an online referendum. Apparently, more citizens have voted for the Babri Masjid than the Ram Mandir and the message is therefore a wake-up call for Hindus to respond to this imminent threat.


One of the groups this was posted on was a parents’ group that was created to share school-related information such as classwork, homework and circulars.

The other group? A family group. It’s no secret now that the "great Indian joint family" is on WhatsApp sharing, across time zones, good morning messages and pictures of food (someone invariably saying, “I’ll come now to eat”), recipes, husband-wife jokes and "rare" images of gods and goddesses, Bollywood actors and cricketing stars, clips from TED talks, stand-up comedies, vacation pictures and must-not-miss "insta" wisdom.

Modi makes his appearance now and then, some venerate him, others bash him and this back and forth goes on until one of them exits these groups, getd added back only to exit again.

Image: Reuters photo

I am bothered by quantity. How many persons view messages like these and dismiss them as implausible, fake, not-worth-my-time and how many actually believe that the apex court would indeed assign the decision on the nation’s most sensitive, most polarising, most religio-political issue to an online referendum on a spurious website filled with Google ads?

There are other messages that claim that 9.5 lakh Indian villages were electrified since the BJP came to power. A simple Google search will reveal that there are only around 6.45 lakh villages altogether (according to the 2011 Census). In fact, the number of villages remains contested.


Another message doing the rounds is that the Modi government has introduced a new law, Section 233 of IPC that would allow victims of rape to kill her assailants. Section 233, in fact, pertains to making, mending and selling counterfeit coins.

Mass messages made of completely unverified information without any sort of reference to sources or worse still, fake sources (remember UNESCO declares Modi as the best prime minister in the world?) spreads like a communicable disease without any cure and finds a very casual presence in groups that otherwise share jokes and exhibit genial familial behaviour.

The Financial Express in February reported that there are currently 200 million active WhatsApp users in India as against 20 million users in August 2013. The transformation of WhatsApp from a benign messaging service into an instrument that facilitates the mobilisation of mobs, the unlawful dissemination of board-exam question papers, the broadcasting of fake news, political propaganda and the home delivery of toxicity seems to be complete.

The perverse voyeurism from a dystopian world (like A Clockwork Orange, for instance) suddenly seems frighteningly possible. I am alarmed when somebody tells me that there is a demand for "real" rape videos and child pornography, sodomy, dressing-room and other "hidden-camera" videos.


While these videos are perhaps not made exclusively for WhatsApp, the app definitely aids in the bulk dissemination and increases possibility of "virality". What’sApp presently allows us to report spam through the app. You’re supposed to report a particular contact as spam.

However, this doesn’t really solve the problem because you wouldn’t, say, report your father or other close family members as spam for the messages come from everywhere.

Recently, singer Chinmayi Sripada started the campaign "Make Twitter Safe for Women" demanding that Twitter bans accounts that issues rape threats, threats of acid attacks and threatens women with "dire consequences" when they speak up against politics or even a film actor for that matter. The argument Chinmayi made on Change.Org was that, in 2015, over three lakh accounts were banned for suspected terrorism links.

Why should open threats of violence against women not receive the same treatment?

How does one extend this argument to a messaging service like WhatsApp which is filled with misogynistic jokes, sexist videos, discriminatory forwards and bigoted opinions that can sway emotion and manufacture communal tension at the touch of a button? It, therefore, begs the question: Is there room for censorship?

Hate speeches and censorship

"Hate speech" as such is not defined by any law in India. While the Indian Constitution guarantees free speech under Article 19, it imposes certain “reasonable restrictions” through 19(2) in the interest of “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

A universal challenge to the autonomy of free speech is to ensure that this liberty is not used to the disadvantage of other individuals, minority identities and vulnerable sections of the society.

How does one regulate hate speech on a medium like WhatsApp without bringing about a repressive police state that legally persecutes its citizens for their social media activity? On a medium like WhatsApp it becomes an arduous process to trace the origins of hate speech.

I am a faithful advocate of the liberal view that free speech is a hallmark of a good democracy and a strong political system, but when confronted with large-scale depravity that demands "real rape videos", utopian liberal views cannot become a strategy for dystopian reality.

A strong legal framework which embraces the principles of Constitutional morality of social justice, democratic ethos and egalitarianism is necessary. So, it isn’t only about making stronger cyber-crime laws, but demonstrating a commitment to principled law enforcement.

It requires commitment on the part of WhatsApp users. "Do no harm" could be a governing principle when you’re forwarding messages over WhatsApp. Another one could be, "pause and reflect". We must begin to ask ourselves the question: "Is this true?", before we hit the forward button indiscriminately.

Digital patriarchy and cyberfeminism

With demand for obscene, depraved videos where women are the subjects, coupled with WhatsApp paving the way for quick virality and the disturbingly normalised phenomenon of mass trolling of women on social media, it becomes extremely pertinent to articulate notions of digital patriarchy and to find suitable remedies.

Agents of patriarchy use internet and communication technology (ICT) to humiliate, intimidate, coerce, abuse and discriminate against a range of marginal identities.

In this regard, cyberfeminism is not only a gendered view of digital culture and practice, but also a political articulation to make the internet a democratic, egalitarian, equitable and an inclusive space for all genders. If one were to delve into the realms of utopia and seek to imagine the internet as inherently feminist one needs to not only critically examine the vanguardism that persists in the internet but also scrutinise this digital ecosystem that involves technology companies, internet service providers, regulatory authorities and the state.

As more and more persons face persecution in the digital medium, a feminist internet would enable persons to challenge sexism, discrimination and digital patriarchy.

What next?

Making the internet and its allied technologies safe for its users is the moral responsibility of technological companies. What is WhatsApp’s business model given that there are no ads?

At the time of its launch, WhatsApp was a paid app. Priced around $1 per download, it made money through bulk downloads. In 2016, the app became free and it scrapped the subscription charges. In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for US$19 Billion. Facebook maintains that WhatsApp messages are entirely safe owing to their end-to-end encryption. This means that every message sent is secured by code and only the receiver (and not even WhatsApp) has the encryption key.

So, what’s the catch? If one has to go by the adage, “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product”, then we’re yet to see what plans FB has for Whatsapp.



Last updated: April 22, 2018 | 23:22
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